Monkey See, Monkey Do – A Barefoot Running Clinic

sf leap courtesy of foxtongue

If you’ve read Born to Run, and you’ve been overcome with a desire to throw your expensive, cushioned running shoes away and run barefoot, you’re not alone.

Barefoot Ted, profiled in the book, was running a couple of clinics down at ZombieRunner, in Palo Alto, and it seemed too much like serendipity not to give it a try. (In case you’re wondering how much he’s like the character McDougall profiles in the book, well he sure can talk, but he’s more humble and less frenetic in person, which was a nice surprise.  He was sporting a rather large silver monkey necklace, inspired by the El Mono animal nickname he picks up in the book.  Ted was of course barefoot, and the feet are not freakish as you might suspect from years of being barefoot, rather they appeared very smooth, as if coated on the base with a supple leather.  No one got to actually touch them!  Also, ironically, Ted claims to now have more shoes than he ever did before gaining notoriety, because all these shoe companies are sending him their back to nature shoes, seeking his endorsement.)  Final sidebar, Zombie Runner offers fantastic espresso available from a small cafe station within the store, an unexpected supplement to a very nice collection of running gear and excellent service.

Barefoot running is full of surprises.  If you’re like me, you probably have this mental perception some part of your body is going to break if you try running or jumping without the protection of your running shoes and orthotics (if you have them).  If you’re going to be crazy enough to run without  shoes, surely you start on nice soft grass?  Not so.  It’s a “mystery surface” according to Ted.  You never know what bumps, sticks, insects, or sharp objects might be hidden amongst all that green plushness.  So we started on asphalt.   We started walking first on our heels and then on our forefoot and back again.  You can literally feel the impact up through your heel, calf bone all the way to your knee when you heel strike.  Ouch! You instantly know instinctively that you couldn’t possibly run with a heel strike without a cushioned shoe.

Running barefoot is such a surprise.  I dare you not to break into a smile the first time.  Maybe not quite as ecstatic a leap as in the picture.   It’s like one of those other incredibly liberating physical experiences, a flow moment, where you feel like a kid again, in touch with the earth and your body.  Like in the book, you start with easy, and go for smooth.  Ted has a post on the technique. Small, quick footsteps, fast cadence (about 180 steps per minute).  Touch ground for the shortest possible period, with least possible noise.  Imagine you’re hunting – you can’t surprise the prey if you’re feet are slapping loudly on the ground.  Core strong, arms pumping straight back and forth.   We ran back and forth and received our critiques.

We also jumped up and down some concrete stairs at the Caltrain station.  I found this terrifying at first, but it rapidly builds confidence.  Jump deliberately and stop between jumps.  Use your arms to counterbalance.

The trick to transitioning to barefoot running seems to be building up to it slowly.  You don’t just head out for 6 or 10 miles tomorrow.  Start with barefoot around the house.  Then maybe walk the dogs barefoot.   Then start at 1/2 a mile and gradually add distance.  Tendons, muscles and skin in your feet and legs will adapt.  I don’t really understand how it works (the foot is an architectural marvel), but it feels good enough to keep working at it. Thank you Ted.

Let me know if you’re interested or given it a try yourself.  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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Were we born to run?

Do you remember running as a child? If you’ve got kids watch them run. Unbridled joy and beautiful form in any kind of shoe. Why do so many lose this as they get older? What happened?  Currently, I’m training for my first 50 miler, the Quicksilver 50 Mile on May 8th. Tell people you’re running 50 miles and they look at you like you’re crazy. But lately, I’ve been enjoying running like I was a child again.

The unabridged audio version of Chris McDougall’s Born to Runhas only fanned the flames, filling me with conviction that I’m rediscovering what we were all meant to do. I was heading out in some brand new shoes when I got to the section which argues the heel strike advocated by Nike’s Bill Bowerman was only enabled by the cushioned shoes Nike was trying to sell, and this modified foot strike, is the source of most running injuries. Apparently, people get injured running more often now than they did in the 70s before the rise of this new foot strike and shoe type.

I was a prolific teenage runner, who used to have a natural midfoot-toe strike and who used to love just running.  About 10 years ago, I developed knee problems with a heel strike and overstriding (extending the leg straight out in front prior to impact).  Since reverting back to my natural style and spending more time barefoot, I’ve been running faster and with less injuries.  Chris McDougall tells of similar experiences.

The Vibram Five Finger shoe is the poster child for this new barefoot/natural running movement.  It’s a bizarre invention to those of us used to the modern running shoe, and certainly a conversation starter – a Vibram rubber glove for your feet.  You only have to look at the customer reviews to see how much people love these things, injuries decrease and they never want to wear heeled shoes again.  I’m going to get a pair myself to see if they address the chronic ilio-tibial band (ITB) issues I’ve been dealing with.

BTW, the book is fantastic on a number of levels and also a wonderful audio book that will make any workout fly by.  It builds to this incredible 50 mile race on the Tarahumara‘s home turf, by way of Chris’ personal story, and many wonderful side bars on legends and characters in the sport of ultrarunning like Scott Jurek, 7 time Western States 100 mile winner, and Ann Trason.  He explores nutrition and running shoes, and the amazing story of persistence hunting – a technique still practiced by a very few Kalahari bushmen, and a theory that we evolved to be able to actually consistently run antelope and other pray down via exhaustion (the key is not speed, but 3-5 hours of endurance and team work) and we evolved very specific body parts to assist with this.  In other words we were born to run.  If nothing else, I no longer feel like I’m the odd one for taking on a 50 miler.